Radical Apologetics: Paul Tillich and Radical Philosophical Atheism

  • Russell Re Manning
Part of the Radical Theologies book series (RADT)


Paul Tillich is perhaps best known for his apologetic theology, in which he develops theological answers to existential questions. Tillich names this approach “correlation” and gives as a definition that the “method of correlation explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence.”1 For many, this methodological stance represents the last great hurrah of liberal modern theology: reactive and thus dependant upon the secular philosophy that it seeks to reply to and that it is positioned by. It is precisely this sort of theological loss of nerve that John Milbank has in mind when proposing his radical alternative:

The pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, [sic.] this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a meta-discourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol…If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitably that these other discourses will position theology: for the necessity of an ultimate organizing logic cannot be wished away2


Christian Faith Natural Theology Christian Theology Existential Question Continental Philosophy 
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  1. 2.
    John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 1.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Michael Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 98.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    In effect, this apologetic allergy is one of the common features of the otherwise highly divergent strands that constitute the dominant mainstream in contemporary theology and philosophy of religion. Strikingly, just as John Milbank’s “radical orthodoxy,” the “post-liberal” theology associated with Hans Frei and George Lindbeck and the Barthian-Bonhoefferian line all share a rejection of apologetics, so too do the more philosophical styles of “reformed epistemology” and “analytic theology.” The obvious exception here are the recent various revivals of natural theology, from Richard Swinburne’s cumulative case theism and William Lane Craig’s “reasonable theism” to Alister McGrath’s “scientific theology” and the more indirect imaginative apologetics of John Cottingham, Mark Wynn and Douglas Hedley. For more on the intellectual history and variety of natural theology and the eclipse of apologetics in mainstream theology and philosophy of religion, see Russell Re Manning (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) and New Varieties of Natural Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2015).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For an example of a positive estimation of such a position, explicitly influenced by Tillich, see the project of Robert S. Corrington, in particular, Nature and Spirit. An Essay in Ecstatic Naturalism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992). A good example of Tillich’s place in textbook accounts of the history of modern theology,Google Scholar
  5. see David H. Kelsey’s chapter in David F. Ford (edited with Rachel Muers), The Modern Theologians. An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918. 3rd ed. (Maiden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 62–75.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    As should be obvious, my reference to “newer” atheism is intended to distinguish the kind of philosophically atheism that is the concern of this chapter from the so-called “new” atheism, which is primarily scientifically motivated in the cases of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and politically motivated in the cases of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. For an insightful critical discussion of this latter, see Amarnath Amarasingam (ed.), Religion and the New Atheism. A Critical Appraisal (Leiden: Brill, 2010). See especially Chapter 2, “Beating ‘God’ to Death. Radical Thelogy and New Atheism” (25–36), in which Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey develop a “radical theological critique of the new atheism” explicitly informed by Tillich’s own critique of “theological theism.”Google Scholar
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    In this chapter, I draw largely on the following interpretative accounts of these philosophical atheisms: Laurence Paul Hemming, Heidegger’s Atheism. The Refusal of a Theological Voice (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism. Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), and Christopher Watkin in his Difficult Atheism. Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011). Of course, this does not mean that I fully endorse their interpretations, nor their constructive conclusions, but am rather appropriating their presentations as contestable yet defensible accounts of two major twentieth-century philosophical atheistic positions.Google Scholar
  8. It would, I submit be possible to extend the range of this encounter with reference to the philosophical atheisms of a set of thinkers including Kojève, Levinas, Koyré, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Hyppolite (and Heidegger) considered in Stefanos Geroulanos, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).Google Scholar
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    Hemming is less concerned to rebut Caputo specifically—aiming most of his critical fire at Jean-Luc Marion, but he does refer to John D. Caputo, “Heidegger and Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Martin Heidegger, ed. C. Guignon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Heidegger and Aquinas (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), and Demythologizing Heidegger (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). Hägglund is equally exercised by Marion’s misinterpretation of Derrida, but also takes care to set out his own position in comparison with that put forward by Caputo, referring primarily to The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    By contrast, it might not unreasonably be said that it is one of the defining novelties of the “new atheism” that it is so concerned with a desire to prove the nonexistence of the divine! For a fascinating perspective on the decidedly un-philosophical new atheism, see Tim Jenkins, “Closer to Dan Brown than Gregor Mendel. On Dawkins’ The God Delusion,” Scottish Journal of Theology 62.3 (2009): 269–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    John D. Caputo, “Theopoetics as Radical Theology.” In Theopoetic Folds. Philosophizing Multifariousness, ed. Roland Faber and Jeremy Fackenthal (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 125–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In this I differ from the emphasis placed in Robbins and Rodkey’s response to “new atheism” on Tillich’s critique of “theological theism.” They correctly develop a critique of new atheism’s commitment to a particularly narrow form of “theism” and the consequent obsession with disproving the existence of God—as though that were what really mattered. By contrast, for the radical philosophical atheisms of Heidegger and Derrida the question of the existence or nonexistence of God is of little concern; what matters instead are the philosophical consequences of the death of God and that, in Nietzsche’s words, “the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 343.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Here, it should be stressed that Tillich’s formula “theology of culture” is disanalogous to Pannenberg’s understanding of “theology of nature”. In the latter, religious concepts or claims are used to structure and determine a “theological” interpretation of nature (e.g., as created or in the image of God). By contrast, Tillich’s theology of culture cedes no prior authority to the religious in its interpretation of culture. In fact, Tillich’s “theology of culture” is, in this sense at least, more similar to “natural theology” than to “theology of nature.” See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Toward a Theology of Nature. Essays on Science and Faith, ed. Ted Peters (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) and Re Manning, Handbook of Natural Theology.Google Scholar
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    For more on Tillich’s appropriation of Schelling in his concept of God, see Russell Re Manning, Theology at the End of Culture. Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture and Art (Leuven: Peeters Press, 2005).Google Scholar
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    The distinction is, of course, Tillich’s from “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion.” In Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 10–29.Google Scholar
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    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 170.Google Scholar
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    Alain Badiou, “L’Offrande réservée.” In Sens en tout sens: Autour des travaux de Jean-Luc Nancy, ed. François Guibal and Jean-Clet Martin (Paris: Galiée, 2004), 15–16. English translation by Watkin, Difficult Atheism, 19.Google Scholar
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    It is instructive to see the contours of this debate in the encounter between Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ. Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    See Russell Re Manning “A Political Theology of Culture.” In Kritische Theologie. Paul Tillich in Frankfurt (1929–1933), ed. Heiko Schulz (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming 2015).Google Scholar

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